By Richard Sennett* – The Guardian
The anger that drives the president’s supporters was visible 50 years ago. As it hardens, they may shift further right
Even if Donald Trump loses, his base will not desert him. Those Maga caps, Trump-branded jackets and gun-butt decals are precious symbols for an estimated 30% of Americans. The “real” America belongs to them; if the election turns out wrong, the base will go to extremes to get it back. In a country of more than 300 million, 30% of people is a lot of extremists.
Trump’s base is in part trying to work out how to use its whiteness as a political tool, conveying purity and nostalgic wholesomeness as well as skin colour. Excluding outsiders – as when Trump called Mexican migrants “rapists” and “criminal cheats” – and segregating people of colour inside the country are justified for the same reason; both groups are regarded as “impure bodies”. But racism alone can’t explain the sneering aggression, the viciousness of the base towards other Americans.
The base is animated by a kind of perverse zero-sum game that allows people to feel better about themselves by putting others down. Conversely, recognising that others have needs and rights of their own seems to take these needs and rights away from oneself. It’s this zero-sum game that, I think, fuels the hostility of the base towards others. Ultimately it’s a game the player can’t win – putting others down cannot in the end make you a stronger person – but the base has something like a gambling addiction. It tries to feel better about itself, doesn’t succeed, so keeps playing, attempting to convert anger and contempt into self-worth. Frustration pushes it ever further to the extremes.
Fifty years ago, while working on our study The Hidden Injuries of Class, Jonathan Cobb and I glimpsed the origins of the zero-sum game in a white, working-class, Democratic stronghold in Boston. Many of these families had out of necessity joined very different people during the second world war at home and abroad, and shared a common fate of insecurity during the Great Depression.
But those shared memories had weakened by the 1970s. Something now seemed missing, both in their local communities and in their own life purposes. This absence made them angry – angry at others, expressed in the conviction that elites and the underclass, the socially minded programmes of the Ford Foundation and the ghetto, were in collusion against decent, hard-working Americans like themselves. The trope did nothing to make them feel better.
What once could be framed as a matter of class – as people left behind during the post-war boom – now is a matter of mass, a sense of something gone wrong that cuts through the US from top to bottom. Expressed politically, this sentiment swelled the base in the last election; Trump voters were a compound of retirees, industrial workers, small-business proprietors and prosperous suburbanites, including a surprisingly large slice of middle-class black people. These voters are now deserting him; even many Christian evangelicals seem to have had enough.
That desertion feeds into the most frightening thing about the base. Betrayal is how its people explain why they are losing the game: they never counted on Harvard, but they did count on the military, that icon of American strength. But then there was John McCain, and after him the parade of ex-generals who tried to bring order into the House of Trump. Just as McCain was branded a “loser”, so the White House view of these soldiers was that they weren’t up to the job.
Similarly, doctors like Anthony Fauci undermine people for whom wearing a mask is a sign of weakness, or liberalism, or both. The generals and the doctors are motivated by service – and service is a concept that lies outside the orbit of the zero-sum game, because you give to others rather than take from them. In Trump-speak, service is for “suckers”.
In other countries and other times, betrayal has fuelled the fire of extremist violence. After the first world war, the belief among many Germans that they had been betrayed from within legitimised Nazi reprisals against Jews and other perceived internal enemies. But in the US today, the size of the “real” America is shrinking as the list grows of people who have sold it out.
After an election that Trump will probably lose, what worries me about the base is that it will shift towards the conspiracy theorists, armed vigilantes, a reborn Ku Klux Klan, because the aggressiveness of such groups can be counted on. Mainstream America will have turned against the real America. If this seems too extreme a prospect, you need only remember that in 2016 the accepted wisdom was that anyone like Trump could not possibly be elected.
In the 1970s I thought the hidden injuries of class might heal in part through local, face-to-face interaction with people who are different. That hope doesn’t make sense today. I’ve lost my empathy for the complex motivations that animate fear and reaction. The mantra of “bringing the country together” loses any meaning as the base hardens and shifts to the extreme right; instead it has to be held to account for the criminal tendencies encouraged by its leader. The US isn’t going to heal any time soon. Mon 2 Nov 2020
* Richard Sennett is a professor of sociology at LSE and visiting professor of architecture at Cambridge University
Trump says supporters who harassed Biden campaign bus ‘did nothing wrong’
FBI investigating incident that prompted safety concerns. Convoys also blocked traffic in New York and New Jersey. Donald Trump and senior Republican leaders have continued to defend supporters of the president who participated in a caravan that surrounded and harassed a Joe Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway on Friday. “This story is FALSE,” the president tweeted on Monday, the last day before election day. “They did nothing wrong.”: